Interview: Luc Donckerwolke + SangYup Lee, Head of Design at Hyundai and Genesis

Insight on the development of the 2021 Genesis GV80 SUV and the brand as a whole

Earlier this year, we sat down with SungYup Lee (now the head of design at Hyundai and Genesis, formerly the design head at the latter) and Luc Donckerwolke (then the chief design officer of Hyundai Motor Group, which also includes Kia, who recently left the company). The two longtime friends have worked together at multiple manufacturers over the years and shared an office at the time—much to the confusion and entertainment of their colleagues—where they spent each day talking, sketching and ideating on their momentous task: more than designing a car, they were building the DNA of an entire brand. The occasion for our meeting was the release of the Genesis 2021 GV80—the brand’s first SUV, four years in the making. Both were relieved to share their work and provide insight on the car’s development.

We’ve known you both for many years through your work for different manufacturers. Over time we’ve gotten to learn your personalities and styles and, as this is one of the first vehicles you’ve designed together for Genesis, we can really see that along with the brand identity.

SangYup Lee: That’s the important part, because you have to understand the culture and know what you can extract out of the culture and put it into the body of the car, which is always fundamental. You always have to approach the brand with respect. We worked on VW together and Lamborghini, and it’s the same approach always.

Luc Donckerwolke: Even if, obviously, we have certain baggage that we’ve acquired by working on different brands and doing different things, when we work for a new one we always try to have a blank canvas and try to say, “OK we’ve done that, but now we’re trying to see and do something different.” This was the main thing with Genesis. Hyundai is completely different. You’re going to see some new Hyundais this year, which are really wild. This one was an exercise in maturity—how to show some self-confidence and maturity, not be arrogant or aggressive.

That’s what’s interesting about Genesis: you’re not dealing with legacy style but working from a clean slate.

SL: When we were at Bentley, we always began with a sketch. From there, the first thing we asked ourselves is, “Is this part of the family?” Right now, as a luxury Korean brand, we begin with blank pages—as a designer, working on each design, and at the same time as we are building the brand. This is actually an amazing opportunity.

LD: It was important not to invent something that after we go somewhere else or we retire, somebody says, “OK, what do I do with this now?” It was important to create something authentic. This is why we started with the logo. We said, “Hey, can we do something here?” And that led to the morphing of the logo into the front design of the car and into the brand. It’s basically a real morphing of the brand into the design of the car.

So the logo truly speaks about the brand’s development.

SL: There are a million logos out there but we were so ambitious about it; we thought, “Let us make a face out of wings.” We wanted people to know we are distinctively different and charismatic.

LD: We also created a face which is not fashionable. One that doesn’t have to be changed in the next model. You’ll see when they come out that they all have the same design principles, though they’re applied on different volumes so they look different. But, actually, it is the same principle and the same logic. That was important because I don’t want to do something and then next year say, “We’ve done that, let’s invent something else.” That would be proving that you are not a luxury brand by not being consistent.

Can you tell us about the “two lines” on the GV80 that you’ve referred to?

SL: There are two lines all the way around the vehicle which create a very distinct light architecture. They are not only seen during the daytime but also nighttime. You can really distinguish Genesis by these two lines—and just these two lines—in the darkness. Also, at the moment, we’ve got one of the thinnest headlamps in the market. Period. We did this by using our special LED technologies. I can tell you that we only want them to get thinner.

Do different regions require different lighting designs or limit technologies? 

LD: We are consistent all over the globe. There is no European face, no American face. It has to be the same design. The main thing is, this is showing how bold the concept is. It’s not only the design, it’s the fact that when we designed this, it had a direct consequence of how we were going to structure the options of the car. If you design a car and you have, for instance, the base model with conventional lighting, it is basically dictating the size of your headlamps, and then you put the LED matrix lights in and automatically you have what I call an aquarium—it’s too big. So you have to fill it with chrome and ornaments because you have LED models which add components that are not big enough to fill the whole thing. We decided that we would apply the LED technology globally, to all models.

For a designer, it is always more challenging to do an elegant car versus a stylish one

SL: Because of that, we didn’t need to play a lot with the styling, because we have a distinctive character and everything else works to support the whole design. If you take a look at the car, this is a really, really beautiful proportion. We actually promised ourselves to deliver the most beautiful real-wheel drive SUV to the market. The parabolic line really pushes the fender down. There are these big tires with 22-inch wheels. The car has everything. It has balance. For a designer, it is always more challenging to do an elegant car versus a stylish one.

It has a strong presence. 

LD: It has a lot of the things that we don’t do anymore—for instance, the anti-wedge architecture of the car. All the cars since the ’70s suddenly all became wedge-shaped. It’s a bit of a cliché of trying to be dynamic and actually the most adequate way to create an elegant car in this segment is to go the other way, to go the self-confident way, to go anti-wedge by sitting well on the rear wheels. You have this parabolic line, a descending line, which we really wanted as a characteristic that we will have in all Genesis models.

Can we go back four years, when you were new to the brand and starting work on this vehicle? Is there anything you can share about that blank slate, thinking about what you want this brand to represent visually?

LD: Well, it first started with the fact that it was incredibly audacious for Hyundai to want to show their competence and technological knowhow in a premium brand. They’ve been doing that in the local market successfully. One thing is to know that you can do it; the other thing is to successfully transform it all into a brand. So we said, “OK, Genesis is an audacious brand.” Because nobody needs another luxury brand.

The best idea badly executed isn’t a good idea to begin with

SL: Young luxury has to be progressive and on top of it. We are a Korean luxury brand, so what can we do to actually have Korean character in the vehicle? It shows quite well in the interior. It’s all about the concept of Korea, the beauty of white space and simple, clean architecture. These days interior design is quite challenging because all the technologies that come with the connected car, with all the entertainment systems, the interior gets busier and busier. We approached it the other way around: all the technology is there but in the most simple, minimalist way.

LD: Designing was just like morphing those elements, and the badge and the brand, into the design of the past. This is where it’s fun because everybody can sketch. We’ve been trained, but being a sketch machine does not bring you into the future. We basically spent so much time talking and reflecting and sometimes it’s just like a thumbnail that we give to the designers and say, “That’s it, that’s the thing. Just make it.” It’s almost like a design indication of how to execute this because the best idea badly executed isn’t a good idea to begin with.

Visit Genesis to learn more about the 2021 GV80. Pricing in the US starts at $50,000 and tops out just over $72,000. What you’ll discover may surprise you—the SUV has a fresh look and its interior is sophisticated, chic and well-executed. Selecting your preferred car is easy, with only a few choices like powertrain and the standard, advanced or prestige packages and the interior and exterior color.

Images courtesy of Genesis